Pam Maxwell, a parishioner at Christ the King Catholic Church in South Bend, recounted the following story:
“A man was at Sunday Mass, praying heavily about his divorce situation. After Mass, he spoke to a young priest, with whom he had an impromptu confession in the back pew. The man could tell that the priest was being quite thoughtful about what sort of penance would be appropriate. Finally, the man said to the priest, ‘I can make a suggestion, if you’d like.’ The priest accepted his offer. [The man] said that for his penance, he should sign up for the ‘Surviving Divorce’ group. The priest heartily agreed.”
The Surviving Divorce program, published by Ascension Press, was developed to help people like the man in Pam Maxwell’s story process their divorce situations from a Catholic perspective. Maxwell has been involved with the program since 2020, when she was approached to begin the ministry at Christ the King. After training and an interlude because of COVID-19, Maxwell is currently running the Fall 2023 sessions. “As long as we have people interested, we’ll continue to run it,” Maxwell said.
The Surviving Divorce program spans 12 weekly sessions, each centered around a different topic such as dealing with anger, family, or finances. Besides acknowledging the psychological toll of a marriage breakdown, the series also offers practical advice, such as how to navigate the annulment process and the Church’s teachings on relevant issues.
Maxwell said participants in the program have been in almost every stage of the process – separated, about to separate, civilly divorced, annulled, thinking about going through the annulment process. They also come from different parishes across the area.
Maxwell brings her own experiences with divorce and annulment to her role as facilitator. “I really like to dispel the myths,” Maxwell said. So many people think “that you can just buy an annulment,” she said.
In a typical week’s session, participants begin by touching base about their situations and how they’re doing that week. Then, they watch a half-hour video on the topic of the week, followed by a group discussion.
The videos feature several Catholic speakers, priests, psychologists, and people who have gone through separation situations as Catholics. Some of the people telling their personal stories are featured in more than one video. “Depending on the subject matter, you can kind of see their growth,” Maxwell said. She added that Lisa Everett, Director of Marriage and Family Ministry for the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, has also supplemented the program with enriching prayers and readings for participants, including what popes have said about divorce or about saints who suffered marital separation.
Maxwell called the program a “place to come and speak freely with people who are going through or have gone through similar situations.”
“People have someone to talk to,” Maxwell said. “There’s camaraderie. They’re not alone. That can be really important to some.”
Maxwell said one woman has even returned to go through the program a second time. The participants feel free, Maxwell said, to talk openly about their situations and the various emotions that come with separation, including the common feelings of guilt, embarrassment, and unworthiness.
An educator who recently went through the Surviving Divorce program at Christ the King agreed with Maxwell that the camaraderie is an important benefit of the program.
“Maybe the most significant thing is the fact that other individuals of faith have gone through similar circumstances,” the participant said, adding that the group formed “deep friendships” and still keep in touch even after the end of the program.
The participant said that one of the topics that really resonated was the principle of forgiveness – by all parties. “Before you forgive others, you have to forgive yourself,” the participant recalled.
Maxwell said that Holy Cross Father Steve Lacroix, Pastor at Christ the King, has been a “great mentor for this program.”
“I’m really grateful that we’ve been able to offer the Surviving Divorce program at Christ the King,” Father Lacroix told Today’s Catholic in an email. “For people of faith who suffer the trauma of divorce, the healing they need can only come from Christ. However, I know that a lot of times divorced parishioners wonder about their place in the Church and feel different from the happy families they see at Sunday Mass. It’s important that we accompany them through this process so that their relationship with the Lord can grow stronger, especially at a time when they really need to lean on that relationship for healing.”
For more information on the Surviving Divorce program in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, visit diocesefwsb.org/divorce-ministry.
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